Sunday, December 4, 2016

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a Japanese/British film about a POW camp during World War II directed by the controversial Japanese film maker Nagisa Oshima. I have a few complaints, but overall it's a well-made, engrossing movie exploring some fairly large questions about culture and human nature.

The movie centers around four characters: two prisoners and two jailers. The titular Mr. Lawrence is the sole English character who speaks both languages, and he has a fairly good grasp of Japanese culture. Also held prisoner is a South African soldier, Jack Celliers, notably played by David Bowie, who the camp commandant, Captain Yonoi, becomes obsessed with. Also key is Sergeant Hara, a man who oscillates between cruelty and compassion.

The movie's plot is somewhat murky, as the events are intricately linked to the complex motives of its characters. I'm not going to try to offer a complete synopsis - I don't think it would begin to make sense - but I'll focus instead on an overview of the characters and themes.

Both Yonoi and Hara are obsessed with one of the prisoners: Yonoi with Celliers and Hara with Lawrence, though the nature of that obsession is very different. Hara seems driven to come to some sort of understanding with Lawrence, the only prisoner he deems capable of understanding him or the Japanese. He wants to understand the English, as well - he spends a lot of time trying to reconcile Lawrence's merits with various elements he associates with cowardice.

Yonoi's interest in Celliers is even more complex, and I'm not certain how much I actually gleaned. The simplest explanation would be to describe it as repressed sexual desire, which is certainly implied. But it seemed to be more intricate than that: Yonoi's obsession bordered on a spiritual fixation - he seemed to legitimately question Celliers' humanity at times, thinking he was some sort of demon. The two characters also shared a deep sense of guilt over others being punished, and they may have both seen the other as a force meant to punish them. Yonoi seemed to want to die at Celliers' hand - or at the very least to confront him in combat - and Celliers seemed to take great delight in denying this to him.

The movie's title and holiday connections come most of the way through, when Celliers and Lawrence are imprisoned and sentenced to death on Christmas Eve. Presumably, almost the entire movie must take place during the lead-up to the holidays, though the amount of time passing isn't entirely clear. It's during their incarceration that Celliers provides details of his backstory - his guilt stems from failing to protect his younger brother when they were schoolboys. There's a fairly jarring flashback accompanying this revelation, made especially confusing by some awkward decisions around casting a child actor to portray Bowie at 12 but only using a single actor to play his brother in multiple time periods. This may have been symbolic for Celliers remembering his brother at a single point in time, but it just came off as muddled.

The two men are finally collected and taken before a drunken Hara, who informs them they are being cleared of charges. He insists he is Father Christmas and wishes Lawrence Merry Christmas before releasing them back into the general prison population.

Celliers doesn't last much longer - he's eventually beaten, buried up to his neck in sand, and left to die (an end which mirrors the humiliation his younger brother endured, when he was lowered into a pit by a crowd of children).

The movie then jumps ahead four years, past the end of the war. Lawrence, now free, visits Hara, who's now a prisoner of the Allied forces. Hara is set to be executed the next day, and Lawrence has come to pay his respects. Lawrence hates that Hara is going to die, but he has no power to stop it. Hara is actually far more at peace with his fate. They have a philosophical discussion about how both Celliers and Hara are going to be killed by men too certain of themselves. The movie closes on Hara laughing and repeating his holiday greeting.

I found it a strange yet fascinating movie featuring complex character and difficult questions. Lindsay found the pacing a bit tedious, but I found it engrossing throughout. My largest complaint is with that flashback, which felt both out of place and confusing.

The holiday elements were fairly light - it wasn't so much about Christmas as it was about human nature, though it's not too much of a stretch to think Lawrence's indictment of men believing in their own righteousness may be applied universally to religion and culture. Still, this is less a Christmas movie than a movie with "Christmas" in its title.

Available on Amazon.com.

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